Hen Gymru fynyddig, paradwys y bardd,
Pob dyffryn, pob clogwyn, i'm golwg sydd hardd;
Trwy deimlad gwladgarol, mor swynol yw si
Ei nentydd, afonydd, i mi.

Old mountainous Wales, paradise of the poet,
Every valley, every cliff is beautiful in my sight;
Through patriotic feeling, more enchanting is the murmur
Of her streams and rivers to me.

from Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau (Land of my fathers)

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16th April to 20th May 2004 – Llandeilo, Wales to Plymouth, England

  From where we were standing, in a narrow gateway off a busy B-road, the riverbank meadow looked a picture of rural tranquillity, with a grassy bridleway stretching off into the distance along the banks of the lazy River Severn.  Then a swan glided silently into view and all hell broke loose.  My mare, Sealeah, shot backwards into the middle of the road; Lisa’s Arab, Audin, ran through his repertoire of ‘airs above the ground’ and Hannah, our packhorse, as ever chose the direct route – a forward roll through a four foot thick hedge and barbed wire fence.

We looked on in horror.  We were only a week into our ‘big ride’, a trip we’d wanted to do for years and which had at last become reality.  The saving up was over, jobs put on hold for a year or two and we had set off from home in West Wales to see how far we could get:  Wales, England, France, Italy, on through Eastern Europe to Turkey and maybe even as far as Syria or Jordan.  But that’s getting far too far ahead of ourselves.

Back in Gloucestershire, the guilty swan swam out of sight as silently as she had arrived and the horses eventually calmed down.  Unbelievably, Hannah had survived with only a few scratches and her pack saddle and panniers were all intact.  We bred Hannah ten years ago, by Audin, out of my beloved Welsh Cob mare, Annie.  Prior to her new role as packhorse, Hannah had carried me all over the mountains of South Wales.  It wouldn’t be unfair to describe her as a bit ‘hot’ and before starting this current adventure one of our biggest concerns had been how she would accept her new profession as a humble packhorse.  Hannah has always had the unfortunate belief, not only that she is the irresistible force, but also – and more expensively – that there are no immovable objects. 

To be fair, she had adapted superbly well to her new job; staying with us when loose on open hill or tracks; sidestepping skilfully to guide her panniers through the narrowest of bridleway gates, and standing stock still to be loaded and unloaded each day.  So we drew a line under her swan-induced acrobatics and moved on.

We were heading for Plymouth but had discovered that the first place we could cross the Severn was at  Hawbridge, just south of Tewkesbury.  The first week’s route to get there had taken us the length of the Brecon Beacons, over the Black Mountains, down into Monmouthshire and through the Forest of Dean.  We’d set off in the drizzle of mid-April but nothing could have dampened our spirits  - it was hard to believe we’d finally managed to break free.

Across the South Wales hillsides, welcoming as they are, we were still on home territory and we were more than familiar with the cold and wet conditions.  Any complaints were immediately quashed with comments such as “if you think this is cold, how are you going to like it on the Great Hungarian Plain in December?”  Good point, best to carry on knowing that there’d be plenty of sunny days to come.

And there were.  From Symond’s Yat to Gotherington in the Cotswolds we had two days of welcome sunshine and the woods we rode through were carpeted with stitchwort, bluebells and primroses.  A night out in a Herefordshire wood, with the horses tethered in a clearing, ended with a deafening dawn chorus, woodpeckers all around us.

This was one of only a few nights when we couldn’t find somewhere to stay.  To give the horses time to refuel, we preferred to find good grazing so most of our stops were on farms.  Usually our tent would go in with the horses and we would often wake to the sound of contented munching just inches from our heads.  My Arab mare, Sealeah, became quite fascinated by the whole camping experience: trying to unzip the door with her hoof; plunging her fine muzzle into pans of water and mugs of tea, and extricating tasty items from plastic bags.  There is no doubt that, were we to own a decent sized Bedouin tent, she would stroll right in and lie down beside us.

Although Sealeah has to carry me, the heaviest weight, it is Hannah who works the hardest.  We often get off and walk but Hannah bears her load all day.  She usually carries between 50 and 60 kilos – made up of pack saddle, tent, stove, food, sleeping bags, spare clothes, veterinary kit, farriery kit, horse food etc.  With Hannah carrying this - bless her - it means our riding horses are kept unencumbered and we can enjoy the good going as much as possible.

We rode the length of the Cotswolds: a fantastic gallop on Cleeve Hill near Cheltenham; up and down through one immaculate stone village after another, through the heart of England’s horse country – a cross country course on every farm it seemed.  Broad ‘rides’ led us through Oakley Woods and Cirencester Park with startled deer springing across the tracks into the dappled shade of the trees.  It has to be said that some of the good people of Gloucestershire didn’t know quite how to deal with our little travelling party.  Why weren’t we riding thoroughbreds?  Didn’t we realise we were missing Badminton?  It was with some relief that the roman road of the Fosse Way took us rapidly down through Wiltshire into Somerset and the Mendip Hills.

The word ‘rapidly’ is used here in a relative sense.  Compared to conventional forms of transport in the 21st century, our 3 horsepower arrangement is not the quickest.  Typically we cover about 15 to 25 miles a day, a modest mileage but one that can be sustained for the long term.  We’ve been getting up around 6am but with all the packing and loading it’s hard to get going in less than about two hours.

Somerset surprised us with some delightful bridleways, all well maintained and signposted.  Across the Levels we rode through bird reserves full of herons and kingfishers.  There were so many swans here that Hannah almost forgot to panic when she saw them.  We were amazed at how quickly our three companions had learned to accept things which, on our short rides at home, had apparently been terrifying.  Living in a quiet spot, we’d been worried about how they’d cope with traffic, but juggernauts and speeding sports cars were soon accepted without problem.  

Nobody’s tolerance, however, is inexhaustible.  One driver thought he would try and creep past us at a narrowing in the road.  I looked on with disbelief as his car passed within inches of us.  This was too much for Audin who, nerves already set on edge by the guns of a clay pigeon shoot, applied both his own barrels to the car’s shiny front wing.  The vehicle continued for some fifty yards, the driver jumped out, inspected his new dents, hopped back in again and drove off without a word.  It goes without saying that we tried to follow open hill and bridleways as much as possible.  The other advantage of these routes was that Hannah could be free rather than on the lead.  As lead mare of the herd, she never completely accepts being at the back, especially at her favourite pace of trot.  When free she charges ahead, regularly suggesting alternative routes.

Skylark on moor -
sweet song
of non-attachment.

Basho, On Love and Barley

Across the Quantock Hills, the Brendon Hills, Exmoor and Dartmoor we were blessed with fine weather and fantastic riding.  From Dunkery Beacon on Exmoor, we looked back north across the Bristol Channel to the hills of home that we’d left three weeks earlier; they seemed too close.  The overnight stops slotted into place with many coming through contacts made at previous stops.  Some people’s kindness was overwhelming and we were treated to some gargantuan meals with hard-working farming families.  At Okehampton in Devon, Claire Collingwood took us under her wing, insisted we give her all our laundry, and fed us a mountain of delicious food that kept us going for days.  She rode with us across the northern half of Dartmoor, guiding us away from the boggy areas and up onto the Tors with views for miles.

The next day, on our own again, we followed vague paths over the moorland, fell asleep in the sun at lunchtime by an ancient clapper bridge and woke to find our three friends, all loose, standing guard over us.  The final few miles were a blast of perfect green cantering tracks past rows of standing stones and bronze age cairns.  On the summit of Western Beacon, the final hill before the sea, we thought back over the last 400 miles.  We were glad we’d decided to start from home.  It had taken us a month to cover the distance but all five of us had learned a lot along the way.  We looked down through the hazy Devon sunshine to Plymouth and the English Channel.  In a few days the ferry would take us all over to Roscoff in Brittany for further adventure in France and beyond.